The Cult of Blondie: Debbie Harry’s Very Special New York Picture Show
In the Chelsea Hotel’s exhibition space, Debbie Harry has helped curate a Blondie video, picture, and memorabilia show. Go there, gawp, and dance to one of rock’s most enduring bands.
The staff at the Blondie 40th Anniversary show at the Chelsea Hotel’s Storefront Gallery on West 23rd Street have seen it all these last few days. There was the guy who stood in front of the video screen at the back of the pop-up gallery, where Blondie’s videos are playing—mesmerizingly—on a loop, and started dancing. Who can blame him? I’ve struck gold on my two visits: “Heart of Glass,” “Hanging on the Telephone,” “Dreaming,” “Union City Blue,” “The Tide Is High,” and “Atomic.” Had there not been photographs and memorabilia to pore over, dancing would have been the only sensible option.
The show, of photographs of Debbie Harry and band and concert programs and her T-shirts arrayed around the walls, was meant to close September 29 but has been extended to October 6 because the place is hopping, and the exhibition—for obsessives, general fans, or just curiosity-hunters—is great fun. In both phases of the band’s existence, 1974-82 and 1997 to the present day, Harry is simply magnetic to watch and look at: The exhibition’s lead image is Warhol’s portrait of her. Many of the photographs are for sale, unframed and signed by the artists, for $1,500 each, with some of the color prints priced at $2,500.
Blondie sold more than 40 million albums, and its tumultuous history—of huge success, memorable records, drug use, money woes, feuding, and then reuniting, all set against the punk and new wave scene of the 1970s and ’80s—have made it one of the most enduring and talked-about music bands. And, of course, there is Harry herself: forever fascinating, beautiful, charismatic, and enduringly cool. The music, playing as you look at the portraits, still has that thrilling, singalong edginess to it.
Besides what’s on display, the visitors descending to coo over the band’s artifacts are something to behold. There are rock-survivor-y types in black, with sunglasses, whose demeanor speaks of lost nights and rare contact with daylight. There are young rock chicks and rock-boys and arty-looking men and women, in plaid, denim, ripped and stretched cardigans.
At the weekend there were people of all ages, fans of new wave, punk, pop, and perhaps just of Harry herself, just looking wistful and delighted to be there. Everyone stops to watch if their favorite Blondie song/video will come on. One twentysomething guy who sat on his skateboard for a while watching the band play and sing on the screen, utterly rapt, left with only one comment: “She’s fucking awesome.”
A couple of days ago, the Blondie fan club proper visited: A staff member recalled a chorus of people swapping stories and clutching bags full of Blondie memorabilia. The staff have heard “countless” stories from gallery visitors of drug-taking, drinking, and sexual relations back in the day “that don’t sound credible.” One lady claimed she had a “magical connection” to Harry after a video of Blondie played in a Swiss chalet she was staying in. Another lady pressed a gift into the staff member’s hands to pass on to Harry, saying she had promised to pass it on to her when they had a chat 14 years before.
Quite a few gifts and messages are being left for the singer, who lives locally. She helped curate the exhibition alongside her former partner, Chris Stein, Blondie’s co-founder and guitarist; and the art dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch. Stein and Harry were together from 1973 to 1989, and have remained close. Her T-shirts, which hang on the walls, were—I am told—originally hung too low for her liking, and too unevenly. They now hang way up high, and neatly spaced out.
On the walls, the only words from Harry are: “When Chris called me up in ’96 and said we should re-form the band, I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ and hung up.” Stein writes: “I’m constantly asked to verbally describe ‘the days back then.’ It’s as if the sixties didn’t exist, such is the rabid interest in the seventies and the advent of punk, new music, etc. No matter how much regret I beat down about this or that missed thing, I never forget how lucky I am to have been part of these events, this time. It was the best and the worst.”
There are two display cabinets in the center of the gallery, with memorabilia—old fan club magazines, newspapers, ticket stubs, lanyards from festivals, and VIP passes. In a back room there is fan art, amounting to one brilliant painting of Harry, some scary ones, and another that makes her look like Dorothy from The Golden Girls.
The walls themselves are packed with pictures, Stein’s the most sizable grouping among them, and because of his relationship with Harry his photographs of her have the most intimacy and immediacy about them. The pictures themselves, so many shot in New York, speak of the city at its rockiest and punkiest: the scuzzy dressing rooms, the Palladium on a rainy night shot by Bob Gruen, the band in transit, fooling about, bottles of beer backstage.
Stein and Harry, almost always dressed completely in black, are shot walking down sidewalks, dark glasses fixed in place. He captures her with Iggy Pop, Joey Ramone, next to Sting, and in an open-topped car in a “Plastic Letters” outtake in 1977, larking about on a twisting street beneath the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, and on a World Trade Center viewing deck in 1976 or 1977.
There she is arriving in Liverpool, England, and there she is, in a tiger-striped dress for Creem magazine, and alongside Chrissie Hynde in London. Harry’s face is variously captured as beautiful, enigmatic, fierce, stroppy, and creased up in fun. We see Andy Warhol arranging Harry for a picture, and the singer meeting Tab Hunter, presumably on the set of John Waters’ Polyester, whose soundtrack Harry and Stein collaborated on.
The most unexpected Stein shot sees Harry contending with a frying pan fire at her and Stein’s 17th Street apartment in 1977. When not shooting Harry, Stein is often captured in shot himself, camera focused on her, or even himself, as with a picture he calls “An Early Selfie” from 1977. Stein’s latest book, Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk, published by Rizzoli, is also for sale. Harry writes in its pages of remembering going home to their 17th Street apartment and watching Stein develop the pictures, “after a substantial amount of muttering and cursing.”
Other photographers whose work is featured include Roberta Bayley, who captures Harry in a baby-doll dress on stage in Las Vegas in 1979; Mick Rock, whose primary color backgrounds make Harry look even more ethereal; and Bobby Grossman, who photographed Harry with William S. Burroughs in 1979. Annie Leibovitz’s shot of Harry, in golden warrior breastplate, is sexily regal, while Robert Mapplethorpe captures Harry looking just as imperious in profile.
David Godlis’ pictures of Harry and Stein on the street are ridiculously sexy, especially Stein on the Bowery holding a paper with a headline about Idi Amin in 1977; Godlis also photographs Blondie at CBGB in 1977. Gruen captures Harry emerging from a theatrically staged car wreck and then swathed in black with sunglasses, on a train from England to Edinburgh in 1980.
The rapturous expressions of visitors tell their own story, but if you’re in any doubt about the fervor and warmth of Blondie’s fans, read the messages on the whiteboards the gallery has left near the exit: “Hi Debbie, Oldies But Goldies from Istanbul,” one couple writes. Another: “Since 1979, when my folks divorced, you have been consistently saving my life with your music.” Another person regrets not saying hi to Harry at the Gramercy Hotel. “Oh well—hi now—Pat.” Another: “Thank you for getting me through high school. Without you I wouldn’t have made it.” Another: “You are classic and amazing.” And: “Debbie, you are the best!! I’m blonde—but my husband loves you more than me. Love you.”